Australia express, musings on urbanism 2: Surfaces hard, softer, soft

FROM all the building going on in Sydney and Melbourne, one gets the clear impression as far as real estate development is concerned, good money is being made. Yet unlike what too often happens in the States, private profit appears not to come at the expense of an investment in the shared social spaces that are somewhat loftily (and too inchoately) called a city’s public realm. (For an instructive and dispiriting contrast to what we found in Australia, read this, on the ongoing disintegration of New York City’s subway system.) Here, it seems, it’s not one or the other, but both. Public and private. Everybody wins.

The plenitude and variety of welcoming open spaces in Sydney and Melbourne’s newer (or newish) developments suggest that those in charge of urbanism operate with both a robust commitment and sufficient resources to ensure that cities offer pedestrian amblers-around many opportunities to choose from, on and off the street, to meet a friend or just take a midday pause. Places where strangers graze elbows without stepping on one another’s toes.

Architecturally, some are distinctive, others not. Melbourne’s Federation Square, below (completed ca. 2003), epitomizes the complexity of this relationship between urbanism and architecture — and now, it’s become the focus of this never-ending discussion about balancing private and public space, as Apple proposes demolishing one of its buildings to erect a new retail store (read about that here). DSC05167_DxOComprised of a series of buildings, each a slightly different but equally horrible bastardization of some also-horrible Daniel Liebeskind-ish idea (he was on the jury that chose the principal designers), Federation Square nevertheless contains many deep pockets of agreeable urbanity, woven into the eye-smarting silliness of its architecture.

Tourists, by definition peripatetic, will find the complex difficult to avoid. Each day and time we found ourselves in Federation Square, its low-slung and high-rising steps and sitting areas, its recessed spatial eddies and quarkily-configured common spaces, teemed with riots of people, color, and activity. Amphitheater-like steps offer up seating areas for school kids eating lunch, mothers on outing with toddlers in strollers, all manner of passers-by and lingerers. DSC05164_DxOIn front of the Christmas tree, we spotted a woman swathed in hajib posing with her daughter for a picture. Later, discussing the ways Australia’s changed in the past two decades, a remarkably voluble Uber driver — who once worked as an advocate for occupational health and safety in the mining industry — told us that the country’s welcoming immigration policies has created a far more tolerant, open society than the one in which he was raised.

Compositionally, the Federation Square complex offers up nice moments, here and there. Such as this one, on a staircase tucked off the busy, main thoroughfare, where a maintenance worker on break set her blue knapsack down and started in on checking her cell phone, not even bothering to remove her latex gloves.DSC05166_DxO

Among the urbanistically-preoccupied, the best known urban project in Australia, besides Sydney’s Opera House, remains Jan Gehl Associates’ transformation of Melbourne’s Central Business District from a litter-strewn, post-5pm-and-weekend urban graveyard into a vibrant, crowded, see-and-be-seen, free-for-all (I seem to be on some kind of adjectival run) place of urban congregation. DSC05246_DxOThe most clever thing Gehl did was to link together a series of unprepossessing back alleys and reconfigure their street-level frontage to admit teeny-tiny storefronts, just the right size to create arrays of specialized restaurants and shops. DSC05244_DxOThese new open-air pedestrian malls were threaded into the pathways of two preexisting historic shopping arcades; this one, below, even more exquisite than the photo conveys, opened in 1870.

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Royal Arcade, Melbourne

As Danny and I traversed the entire loop, courtesy of a map obtained from the tourist information bureau, I idly mused whether it might be possible to spend all the money earned in a month in a single afternoon walk. Restaurants, art galleries (including one selling what its proprietors claimed were original drawings by Dr. Seuss), clothing and jewelry and hand-mixed cosmetic stores. Certainly the retinue of shopkeepers and restauranteurs milling around, expectantly, held out hope that wallets would empty, and empty again. Ours didn’t, but we enjoyed the show.DSC05241_DxO

Sydney’s Central Business District retains more of its Victorian-era architecture; the newer developments we sought out lie in neighborhoods at a remove from the city’s neverending, serpentine shoreline. In Chippendale, not far from the University of Technology Sydney campus, we were stopped short in our tracks by the sight of this spectacular, justly celebrated high-rise by Jean Nouvel, designed in collaboration with Foster & Partners and Patric Blanc, the French botanist who invented the green wall. Pretentiously, audaciously named One Central Park (the developer’s promotional materials represent it, fatuously, as a vertical version of New York City’s emerald gem), it’s a luxury residential-cum-retail complex defining one edge of a block-sized green, something between a plaza and a park. The day we visited, the plaza-park bubbled with shoppers en route to the supermarket, construction workers on lunch break, seeking shade. The attractive multilevel retail complex encircles a green-walled atrium filled with cascading natural light, and spinning around the void was a blur of parcels leading their human owners hither and yon. How did the architects manage to project natural light so deep into a multistory, partially underground atrium? That large shimmering cantilever projecting off the façade: it’s a metal grid hung with mirrors programmed to follow the rays of the sun, directing and redirecting them into the atrium below.

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Streetside, the building’s green facades project a soft-edged, appealing presence, and Blanc made sure that all the plants are native to Australia.DSC05083_DxO

We continue to pursue green, especially in cities, even with New Zealand long behind us. Neither Sydney nor Melbourne disappointed. Foremost among the urban pastorals is landscape architect Peter Walker’s newly opened Barangaroo Reserve Park. Stunning.

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10,000 blocks of rich, creamy sandstone create a graduated, semi-permeable shoreline edge (professionals call this riprap) that helps to mitigate flooding; Walker, recognizing the stone’s beauty, made it the design datum for the park, using it for much else, too.

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Sitting stones (left).

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Benches, parapets, stairs, terracing.

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The Barangaroo Reserve opened only recently. The day we visited it was practically empty, but that’s because  it’s currently pretty inaccessible, surrounded by a busy thoroughfare and a huge construction site. Soon enough, I predict, it will earn its rightful place as a treasured part of Sydney’s urban fabric. You can read more about it here.

Finally, the magical Botanic Gardens in both cities.

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Just one prospect of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.

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This also displays astonishing set pieces in the form of weird, wonderful trees.

DSC05330_DxOA stubby, fat palm that defiantly sat in our path. DSC05309_DxOA gossamer, red-berried wonder that you spied only if you looked straight up.

DSC05329_DxOOne with gnarly-fingered branches encased in bark so deeply incised that half your hand would fit into each of its grooves. DSC05331_DxOAnd one tree that reminded me of Edward Weston’s wonderful green pepper photographs, or, for a more recent reference, of Del Kathryn Barton’s exuberantly multi-breasted women.

All in all, Australians seem to appreciate the wonders of their cityscapes and their landscapes. More than once, we found its soft surfaces celebrated in the hard ones.

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The country’s two principal cities make a good exemplar for urban livability, one that other cities and countries might take a good, long look at– and take heed.

— Sarah

3 thoughts on “Australia express, musings on urbanism 2: Surfaces hard, softer, soft

  1. I was looking forward to this post and boy it hasn’t disappointed! It’s marvellous what an enlightened city administration (and some good architecture) can do to improve the quality of a city. That One Central Park is a marvel of a building, I didn’t know it before.

    It all reminds me of Milan and Turin, two cities in NW Italy. Milan has always been ugly duckling, but thanks to a series of good administrations it’s getting better and better; Turin, instead, has squandered its 2006 Winter Olympics legacy and is going back to the dirty, unkempt place it once was, and that’s a damn shame.

    thanks for the tour!

    Fabrizio

    Liked by 1 person

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